Newcomer Chloe Gong’s fierce and imaginative retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai breathes new life into a story we all know and love. With high-stakes action, a ruthless and brilliant cast of characters and, of course, a tense romance, These Violent Delights is an unforgettable ride from start to finish.
A BuzzFeed Best Young Adult Book of 2020
Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Serpent&Dove, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One One
In the heart of Scarlet Gang territory, a burlesque club was the place to be.
The calendar was rolling closer and closer to the end of the season, the pages of each date ripping free and blowing away quicker than the browning tree leaves. Time was both hurried and unhurried at once, the days becoming scarce yet dragging on for far too long. Workers were always hurrying somewhere, never mind whether they truly had a destination to pursue. There was always a whistle blowing in the background; there was always the constant chugging noise of trams dragging themselves along the worn tracks grooved into the streets; there was always the stench of resentment stinking up the neighborhoods and burrowing deep into the laundry that waved with the wind, like shop banners outside cramped apartment windows.
Today was an exception.
The clock had paused on the Mid-Autumn Festival—the twenty-second of the month, according to Western methods of day-keeping this year. Once, it was customary to light lanterns and whisper tales of tragedy, to worship what the ancestors revered with moonlight cupped in their palms. Now it was a new age—one that thought itself above its ancestors. Regardless of which territory they stood upon, the people of Shanghai had been bustling about with the spirit of modern celebration since sunrise, and at present, with the bells ringing nine times for the hour, the festivities were only getting started.
Juliette Cai was surveying the club, her eyes searching for the first signs of trouble. It was dimly lit despite the abundance of twinkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the atmosphere dark and murky and wet. There was also a strange, sodden smell wafting under Juliette’s nose in waves, but the poor renovations seemed not to bother the mood of those seated at various round tables scattered throughout the club. The people here would hardly take notice of a small leak in the corner when constant activity consumed their attention instead. Couples were whispering over decks of tarot cards, men were shaking one another with vigor, women were inclining their heads to gasp and shriek in recollection of whatever story was being told over the flickering gaslight.
“You look rather woeful.”
Juliette didn’t immediately turn in haste to identify the voice. She didn’t have to. There were very few people who would approach her speaking English to begin with, never mind English with the flat tones of a Chinese mother tongue and the accent of a French upbringing.
“I am. I am perpetually filled with woe.” Only then did she crane her head, her lips curling up and her eyes narrowing at her cousin. “Aren’t you supposed to be onstage next?”
Rosalind Lang shrugged and crossed her arms, the jade bangles on her slender brown wrists clinking together.
“They cannot begin the show without me,” Rosalind scoffed, “so I am not worried.”
Juliette scanned the crowd again, this time with a target in mind. She found Kathleen, Rosalind’s fraternal twin, near a table at the back of the club. Her other cousin was patiently balancing a tray full of plates, staring at a British merchant while he tried to order a drink with exaggerated gesticulations. Rosalind was under contract here to dance; Kathleen showed up to wait tables when she got bored, and took a measly wage for the fun of it.
Sighing, Juliette dug out a lighter to keep her hands occupied, releasing the flame, then quenching it to the rhythm of the music gliding around the room. She waved the small silver rectangle under her cousin’s nose. “Want?”
Rosalind responded by pulling out a cigarette tucked within the folds of her clothing.
“You don’t even smoke,” she said as Juliette angled the lighter down. “Why do you carry that thing around?”
Straight-faced, Juliette replied, “You know me. Running around. Living life. Committing arson.”
Rosalind inhaled her first puff of smoke, then rolled her eyes. “Right.”
A better mystery would have been where Juliette even kept the lighter. Most girls in the burlesque club—dancer or patron alike—were dressed as Rosalind was: in the fashionable qipao sweeping through Shanghai like a wildfire. With the outrageous slit down the side revealing ankle to thigh and the high collar acting like a choke hold, the design was a blend of Western flamboyance with Eastern roots, and in a city of divided worlds, the women were walking metaphors. But Juliette—Juliette had been transformed through and through, the little beads of her pocketless flapper dress swishing with every movement. She stood out here, that much was certain. She was a bright, burning star, a symbolic figurehead for the vitality of the Scarlet Gang.
Juliette and Rosalind both quietly turned their attention to the stage, where a woman was crooning a song in a language that neither were familiar with. The singer’s voice was lovely, her dress shimmering against dark skin, but this was not the sort of show that this sort of cabaret was known for, and so no one save the two girls at the back was listening.
“You didn’t tell me you would be here tonight,” Rosalind said after a while, smoke escaping her mouth in a quick stream. There was betrayal in her voice, like the omission of information was out of character. The Juliette who had returned last week was not the same Juliette that her cousins had waved goodbye to four years ago, but the changes were mutual. Upon Juliette’s return, before she had even set foot back into the house, she had heard talk of Rosalind’s honey-coated tongue and effortless class. After four years away, Juliette’s memories of the people she had left behind no longer aligned with who they had become. Nothing of her memory had withstood the test of time. This city had reshaped itself and everyone in it had continued moving forward without her, especially Rosalind.
“It was very last minute.” Over at the back of the club, the British merchant had started pantomiming to Kathleen. Juliette gestured toward the scene with her chin. “Bàba is getting tired of some merchant called Walter Dexter pushing for a meeting, so I’m to hear what he wants.”
“Sounds boring,” Rosalind intoned. Her cousin always had a bite to her words, even when speaking with the driest intonation. A small smile perked at Juliette’s lips. At the very least, even if Rosalind felt like a stranger—albeit a familiar one—she would always sound the same. Juliette could close her eyes and pretend they were children again, sniping at each other about the most offensive topics.
She sniffed haughtily, feigning offense. “We can’t all be Parisian-trained dancers.”
“Tell you what, you take over my routine and I’ll be the heir to this city’s underground empire.”
A laugh burst from Juliette, short and loud in her amusement. Her cousin was different. Everything was different. But Juliette was a fast learner.
With a soft sigh, she pushed away from the wall she was leaning upon. “All right,” she said, her gaze latched on Kathleen. “Duty calls. I’ll see you at home.”
Rosalind let her leave with a wave, dropping the cigarette to the ground and crushing it under her high-heeled shoe. Juliette really ought to have admonished her for doing so, but the floor couldn’t have gotten any dirtier than its current state, so what was the point? From the moment she stepped into this place, five different sorts of opium had probably smeared into her soles. All she could do was push through the club as gingerly as possible, hoping the maids wouldn’t damage the leather of her shoes when they scrubbed them clean later tonight.
“I’ll take it from here.”
Kathleen’s chin jerked up in surprise, the jade pendant at her throat gleaming under the light. Rosalind used to tell her that someone was going to snatch such a precious stone if she wore it so obviously, but Kathleen liked it there. If people were to stare her throat, she always said she would rather it be because of the pendant than the bump of her Adam’s apple underneath.
Her startled expression quickly smoothed into a smile, realizing it was Juliette sliding into the seat opposite the British merchant.
“Let me know if I can get anything for you,” Kathleen said sweetly, in perfect, French-accented English.
As she walked away, Walter Dexter’s jaw dropped slack. “She could understand me this whole time?”
“You’ll learn, Mr. Dexter,” Juliette began, swiping the candle from the center of the table and taking a sniff of the scented wax, “that when you assume someone cannot speak English right off the bat, they tend to make fun of you.”
Walter blinked at her, then cocked his head. He took in her dress, her American accent, and her knowledge of his name.
“Juliette Cai,” he concluded. “I was expecting your father.”
The Scarlet Gang called itself a family business, but it did not stop there. The Cais were the pulsing heart, but the gang itself was a network of gangsters and smugglers and merchants and middlemen of all sorts, each and every single one of them answering to Lord Cai. Less-enthused foreigners would call the Scarlets a secret society.
“My father has no time for merchants with no credible history,” Juliette replied. “If it’s important, I will pass along the message.”
Unfortunately, it appeared that Walter Dexter was far more interested in small talk than actual business.
“Last I heard, you had moved to become a New Yorker.”
Juliette dropped the candle back onto the table. The flame flickered, casting eerie shadows over the middle-aged merchant. The lighting only deepened the wrinkles in his perpetually scrunched forehead.
“I was only sent to the West for education, regrettably,” Juliette said, leaning back into the curved couch seat. “Now I’m old enough to start contributing to the family business and whatnot, so they dragged me back kicking and screaming.”
The merchant didn’t laugh along to her joke, as Juliette had intended. Instead, he tapped his temple, ruffling his silver-patched hair.
“Hadn’t you also returned for a brief period of time a few years ago?”
Juliette stiffened, her grin faltering. Behind her, a table of patrons erupted with uproarious laughter, collapsing in mirth over some comment made among themselves. The sound prickled at her neck, sweeping a hot sweat over her skin. She waited for the noise to die down, using the interruption to think fast and scramble hard.
“Just once,” Juliette replied carefully. “New York City wasn’t too safe during the Great War. My family was worried.”
The merchant still didn’t drop the subject. He made a noise of consideration. “The war ended eight years ago. You were here a mere four previous.”
Juliette’s smile dropped entirely. She pushed her bobbed hair back.
“Mr. Dexter, are we here to discuss your extensive knowledge of my personal life, or did this meeting actually have a purpose?”
Walter blanched. “I apologize, Miss Cai. My son, he’s your age, so I happened to know—”
He cut himself off upon noting Juliette’s glare. He cleared his throat.
“I requested to meet with your father regarding a new product.”
Immediately, despite the vague word choice, it was quite clear what Walter Dexter was referring to. The Scarlet Gang was, first and foremost, a network of gangsters, and there was seldom a time when gangsters weren’t heavily involved with the black market. If the Scarlets dominated Shanghai, it was hardly surprising that they dominated the black market, too—decided the comings and goings, decided the men who were allowed to thrive and the men who needed to drop dead. In the parts of the city that still belonged to the Chinese, the Scarlet Gang was not simply above the law; they were the law. Without the gangsters, the merchants were unprotected. Without the merchants, the gangsters would have little purpose or work. It was an ideal partnership—and one being threatened continually by the growing power of the White Flowers, the one other gang in Shanghai that actually had a chance at defeating the Scarlets in black market monopoly. After all, they had been working at it for generations.
“A product, hmm?” Juliette repeated. Her eyes swiveled up absently. The performers had switched, the spotlight dimming as the first opening notes from a saxophone played. Adorned in a brilliant new costume, Rosalind sashayed into view. “Remember what happened the last time the British wanted to introduce a new product into Shanghai?”
Walter frowned. “Are you referring to the Opium Wars?”
Juliette examined her fingernails. “Am I?”
“You cannot possibly blame me for something that was the fault of my country.”
“Oh, that’s not how it works?”
It was Walter’s turn to look unimpressed. He folded his hands together as skirts swished and skin flashed on the stage behind him.
“Nevertheless, I require the help of the Scarlet Gang. I have bulk amounts of lernicrom to be rid of, and it is certain to be the next most desired opiate on the market.” Walter cleared his throat. “I believe you are seeking an upper hand right now.”
Juliette leaned forward. In that sudden motion, the beads on her dress clinked together frantically, clashing with the jazz in the background. “And do you really think you can give us an upper hand?”
The constant grappling between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers wasn’t a secret. Far from it, in fact, because the blood feud was not something that raged only between those with Cai and Montagov to their name. It was a cause that ordinary members loyal to either faction took on personally, with a fervor that could almost be supernatural. Foreigners arriving in Shanghai to do business for the first time received one warning before learning of anything else: pick a side and pick it fast. If they traded once with the Scarlet Gang, they were a Scarlet through and through. They would be embraced in Scarlet territory and killed if they wandered into the areas where the White Flowers reigned.
“I think,” Walter said softly, “that the Scarlet Gang is losing control of its own city.”
Juliette sat back. Underneath the table, her fists tightened until the skin over her knuckles became bloodless. Four years ago, she had looked at Shanghai with glitter in her eyes, blinking at the Scarlet Gang with hope. She hadn’t understood that Shanghai was a foreign city in its own country. Now she did. The British ruled a chunk. The French ruled a chunk. The Russian White Flowers were taking over the only parts that technically remained under Chinese governance. This loss of control was a long time coming—but Juliette would rather bite off her own tongue than admit it freely to a merchant who understood nothing.
“We will get back to you regarding your product, Mr. Dexter,” she said after a long moment, flashing an easy smile. She let out her exhale imperceptibly, releasing the tension that had tightened her stomach to the point of pain. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
The entire club fell into a hush, and suddenly Juliette was speaking too loudly. Walter’s eyes bugged, latching on to a sight over Juliette’s shoulder.
“I’ll be,” he remarked. “If it isn’t one of the Bolshies.”
At the merchant’s words, Juliette felt herself go ice-cold. Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned around to seek Walter Dexter’s line of sight, searching through the smoke and shadows dancing at the entranceway of the burlesque club.
Please, don’t let it be, she pleaded. Anyone but—
Her vision turned hazy. For a terrifying second, the world was tilting on its axis and Juliette was barely clinging to its edge, moments away from taking a tumble. Then the floor righted itself and Juliette could breathe again. She stood and cleared her throat, concentrating all her might on sounding as bored as possible when she stated, “The Montagovs emigrated far before the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Dexter.”
Before anybody could take note of her, Juliette slinked into the shadows, where the dark walls dimmed the sparkling of her dress and the soggy floorboards muffled the clicking of her heels. Her precautions were unnecessary. Everyone’s gaze was firmly latched on Roma Montagov as he wound his way through the club. For once Rosalind was carrying out a performance that not a soul was paying attention to.
At first glance it could have seemed like the shock emanating from the round tables was because a foreigner had walked in. But this club had many foreigners scattered throughout the crowd, and Roma, with his dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin could have blended in among the Chinese as naturally as a white rose painted red amid poppies. It wasn’t because Roma Montagov was a foreigner. It was because the heir of the White Flowers was wholly recognizable as an enemy on Scarlet Gang territory. From the corner of her eye, Juliette was already catching sight of movement: guns pulled from pockets and knives pointed outward, bodies stirring with animosity.
Juliette stepped out of the shadows and lifted a hand to the closest table. The motion was simple: wait.
The gangsters stilled, each group watching those nearby in example. They waited, pretending to go on with their conversations while Roma Montagov passed table after table, his eyes narrowed in concentration.
Juliette started to creep closer. She pressed a hand to her throat and forced the lump there down, forced her breath to become even until she wasn’t on the verge of panic, until she could wipe on a dazzling smile. Once, Roma would have been able to see right through her. But four years had gone by now. He had changed. So had she.
Juliette reached out and touched the back of his suit jacket. “Hello, stranger.”
Roma turned around. For a moment it seemed as if he hadn’t registered the sight before him. He stared, his gaze as blank as clear glass, utterly uncomprehending.
Then the sight of the Scarlet heiress washed over him like a bucket of ice. Roma’s lips parted with a small puff of air.
The last time he’d seen her, they had been fifteen.
“Juliette,” he exclaimed automatically, but they were no longer familiar enough to use each other’s first names. They hadn’t been for a long while.
Roma cleared his throat. “Miss Cai. When did you return to Shanghai?”
I never left, Juliette wanted to say, but that wasn’t true. Her mind had remained here—her thoughts had constantly revolved around the chaos and the injustice and the burning fury that broiled in these streets—but her physical body had been shipped across the ocean a second time for safekeeping. She had hated it, hated being away so intensely that she felt the force of it burn into a fever each night when she left the parties and speakeasies. The weight of Shanghai was a steel crown nailed to her head. In another world, if she had been given a choice, perhaps she would have walked away, rejected herself as the heir to an empire of mobsters and merchants. But she never had a choice. This was her life, this was her city, these were her people, and because she loved them, she had sworn to herself a long time ago that she would do a damn good job of being who she was because she could be no one else.
It’s all your fault, she wanted to say. You’re the reason I was forced away from my city. My people. My blood.
“I returned a while ago,” Juliette lied easily, checking her hip against the vacant table to her left. “Mr. Montagov, you’ll have to forgive me for asking, but what are you doing here?”
She watched Roma move his hand ever so slightly and guessed that he was checking for the presence of his hidden weapons. She watched him take her in, slow to form words. Juliette had had time to brace herself—seven days and seven nights to enter this city and scrub her mind free of everything that had happened here between them. But whatever Roma had expected to find in this club when he walked in tonight, it certainly hadn’t been Juliette.
“I need to speak to Lord Cai,” Roma finally said, placing his hands behind his back. “It’s important.”
Juliette took a step closer. Her fingers had happened upon the lighter from within the folds of her dress again, thumbing the spark wheel while she hummed in thought. Roma said Cai like a foreign merchant, his mouth pulled wide. The Chinese and the Russians shared the same sound for Cai: tsai, like the sound of a match being struck. His butchering was intentional, an observation of the situation. She was fluent in Russian, he was fluent in Shanghai’s unique dialect, and yet here they were, both speaking English with different accents like a couple of casual merchants. Switching to either of their native tongues would have been like taking a side, so they settled for a middle ground.
“I imagine it must be important, if you’ve come all the way here.” Juliette shrugged, letting go of the lighter. “Speak to me instead, and I’ll pass along the message. One heir to another, Mr. Montagov. You can trust me, can’t you?”
It was a laughable question. Her words said one thing, but her cold, flat stare said another—One misstep while you’re in my territory, and I’ll kill you with my bare hands. She was the last person he would trust, and the same went the other way.
But whatever it was that Roma needed, it must have been serious. He didn’t argue.
He gestured to the side, into the shadows and the dim corners, where there would be less of an audience turned toward them like a second show, waiting for the moment Juliette walked away so they could pounce. Thinning her lips, Juliette pivoted and waved him along to the back of the club instead. He was fast to follow, his measured steps coming closely enough that the beads of Juliette’s dress clinked angrily in disturbance. She didn’t know why she was bothering. She should have thrown him to the Scarlets, let them deal with him.
No, she decided. He is mine to deal with. He is mine to destroy.
Juliette stopped. Now it was just her and Roma Montagov in the shadows, other sounds muffled and other sights dimmed. She rubbed her wrist, demanding her pulse slow down, as if that were within her control.
“Jump to it, then,” she said.
Roma looked around. He ducked his head before speaking, lowering his voice until Juliette had to strain to hear him. And indeed she strained—she refused to lean any closer to him than she had to.
“Last night, five White Flowers died at the ports. Their throats had been torn out.”
Juliette blinked at him.
She didn’t mean to be callous, but members of both their gangs killed each other on the weekly. Juliette herself had already added to the death toll. If he was going to put the blame on her Scarlets, then he was wasting his time.
“And,” Roma said tightly, clearly biting back if you would let me finish, “one of yours. As well as a municipal police officer. British.”
Now Juliette frowned a little, trying to recall if she had overheard anyone in the household last night muttering about a Scarlet death. It was strange for both gangs to have victims on scene, given that larger killings usually happened in ambushes, and stranger still for a police officer to have been pulled down too, but she wouldn’t go so far as to say it was bizarre. She only raised an eyebrow at Roma, disinterested.
Until, continuing onward, he said, “All their wounds were self-inflicted. This wasn’t a territory dispute.”
Juliette shook her head repeatedly to one side, making sure she hadn’t misheard him. When she was certain there was nothing jammed in her ear, she exclaimed, “Seven dead bodies with self-inflicted wounds?”
Roma nodded. He placed another look over his shoulder, as if merely keeping an eye on the gangsters around the tables would prevent them from attacking him. Or perhaps he didn’t care to keep an eye on them at all. Perhaps he was trying to avoid looking straight ahead at Juliette.
“I’m here to find an explanation. Does your father know anything of this?”
Juliette scoffed, the noise deep and resentful. Did he mean to tell her that five White Flowers, one Scarlet, and a police officer had met up at the ports, then torn out their own throats? It sounded like the setup of a terrible joke without a punch line.
“We cannot help you,” Juliette stated.
“Any information could be crucial to discovering what happened, Miss Cai,” Roma persisted. A little notch between his eyebrows always appeared like a crescent moon whenever he was irritated. It was present now. There was more to these deaths than he was letting on; he wouldn’t get this worked up for an ordinary ambush. “One of the dead was yours—”
“We’re not going to cooperate with the White Flowers,” Juliette cut in. Any false humor on her face had long disappeared. “Let me make that clear before you proceed. Regardless of whether my father knows anything about last night’s deaths, we will not be sharing it with you and we will not be furthering any contact that could endanger our own business endeavors. Now, good day, sir.”
Roma had clearly been dismissed, and yet he remained where he stood, glaring at Juliette like there was a sour taste in his mouth. She had already turned on her heel, preparing to make her exit, when she heard Roma whisper viciously, “What happened to you?”
She could have said anything in response. She could have chosen her words with the deathly venom she had acquired in her years away and spat it all out. She could have reminded him of what he did four years ago, pushed the blade of guilt in until he was bleeding. But before she could open her mouth, a scream was piercing through the club, interrupting every other noise as if it operated on another frequency.
The dancers onstage froze; the music was brought to a halt.
“What’s going on?” Juliette muttered. Just as she moved to investigate, Roma hissed out sharply and caught her elbow.
His touch seared through her skin like a painful burn. Juliette jerked her arm away faster than if she had truly been set alight, her eyes blazing. He didn’t have the right. He had lost the right to pretend he had ever wanted to protect her.
Juliette marched toward the other end of the club, ignoring Roma as he followed after her. Rumbles of panic grew louder and louder, though she couldn’t comprehend what was inciting such a reaction until she nudged aside the gathering crowd with an assertive push.
Then she saw the man thrashing on the ground, his own fingers clawing at his thick neck.
“What is he doing?” Juliette shrieked, lunging forward. “Somebody stop him!”
But most of his nails were already buried deep into muscle. The man was digging with an animal-like intensity—as if there was something there, something no one else could see crawling under his skin. Deeper, deeper, deeper, until his fingers were wholly buried and he was pulling free tendons and veins and arteries.
In the next second, the club had fallen silent completely. Nothing was audible save the labored breathing of the short and stout man who had collapsed on the floor, his throat torn into pieces and his hands dripping with blood.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for
These Violent Delights
Our Violent Ends
By Chloe Gong
About the Books
Set in 1920s Shanghai, this atmospheric and intricate Romeo and Juliet–inspired duology follows eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, who has returned from studying in America to claim her rightful place as heir to the Scarlet Gang, a local Chinese criminal network. Four years earlier, her first love, Roma Montagov, heir to the White Flowers, a Russian rival gang, committed a betrayal so deep that the ripples of vengeance still move across the city. What else could she expect from a blood feud motivated by loyalty and violence? Before she can enact her revenge, a monster ravages the city, spreading a contagion that causes murderous madness and that targets both the Scarlets and the White Flowers. On top of the pandemic, political turmoil threatens to rip the city apart and end gangster rule. As a foreign imperialist presence grows, so does the threat of civil war, spurred by both the Nationalist Party and the Communists stoking the embers of revolution among the working class, who are tired of warlord control. Juliette and Roma realize working together may be their only chance for salvation.
1. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet cannot freely marry, not only because of the blood feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, but also because of patriarchal society in medieval Italy. How does this compare to the experiences of the female characters in 1920s Shanghai? How about in contemporary society?
2. Throughout the series, Juliette feels herself split between two worlds: the East and the West. Her family treats her like an outsider, yet in the city she blends in unless she wears flapper dresses. She wonders, “Could she never be both? Was she doomed to choose one country or the other? Be an American or nothing?” Free write for five minutes about your identities and a time you didn’t fit in. What made you feel this way? Did the feeling come from lived experience, stereotypes, or something else? Share with the class, if you’d like.
3. “[Roma] ached with the knowledge that the softness of their youth was gone forever . . .” What is meant by this? When do you think people realize they are no longer children? Does everyone grow up at the same rate? Why or why not? What does “growing up” mean to you?
4. Think about how the madness spreads and what it causes its victims to do. Considering where the insects and monsters come from and who is releasing them into the city, do you think the sickness is a metaphor? If so, for what? Does the metaphor change in book two? Be prepared to back up your answer.
5. Throughout both books, love is akin to death. At many moments, Juliette makes statements like, “‘This is why we shall not love more than we need to. Death will come for everyone in the end,’” and “Perhaps they could be together at last if it was together in death. And what was love if all it did was kill?” Consider the characters that survived in the story. Were they lacking love? Why did they get to live? Are Juliette and Roma destined to die? How might they change their fate? Explain your answers.
6. Consider the main couples and their race, gender, and sexuality. What obstacles might they face (outside of a blood feud) to be together? Have you or anyone you know dated someone family or society did not approve of? What role should family and/or society play in the person you choose to be in a relationship with?
7. “This city holds itself upright by the power of information, and its messengers work frantically, whisper passing whisper until it reaches the ears of its rival darlings.” This quote acts as foreshadowing. What examples from the text describe instances of miscommunication? Imagine the internet and electronic devices did not exist. What scenarios would be disastrous if you could not communicate instantly? Share a time a text message was misunderstood or not delivered. What problem(s) arose from the situation?
8. Juliette considers the racism she experienced in America and Shanghai due to colonizers. “They believed themselves the rulers of the world—on stolen land in America, on stolen land in Shanghai. Everywhere they went—entitlement. And Juliette was so tired.” Do you think entitlement fuels racism, imperialism, and colonization? Explain your answer. Give examples of how these systems of oppression exist today.
9. Shanghai is described as “the Paris of the East, the New York of the West.” Using examples from the text, describe how white, foreign influences shaped Shanghai as compared to the other cities in China that the characters visit. How does Shanghai’s unique culture impact how its inhabitants view themselves? What about the Chinese characters who lived in the West, like Juliette, Kathleen, and Rosalind?
10. Kathleen notes that “Juliette didn’t know how lucky she was to have been born into her natural skin, into her white cheeks and porcelain-smooth wrists. There was so much luck to be had in the genetic lottery; one different code and it was a lifetime of forced adaptation.” Contrast the female characters’ experiences and examine the privileges of being cisgender, wealthy, having lighter skin, and speaking multiple languages. Use examples from the text, including women that are shown in only one scene. How do their identities influence how Juliette and the Lang sisters defy family duty and societal expectations? Are any justified in their actions? Explain your answer.
11. Though this story is a work of historical fiction, the “April 12 Purge” is a real event that occurred in Shanghai in 1927. Why do you think the author chose this time and setting to reimagine Romeo and Juliet? How would you remix Romeo and Juliet in contemporary times? What setting and political issues would you highlight? Share your answer.
12. The Nationalist Party leader instructs the Scarlets to kill all the Communists and to treat the White Flowers as such, risking annihilation of an entire group of people, including workers who have no affiliation, but could be caught at the wrong place and time. What is the impact of this action? Why do you think civilians, especially the working class, are so often casualties of war?
13. Compare strife and tragedy across social classes. Would a laborer working in a factory for sixteen hours a day have time to duel like Roma and Tyler? How would the story change if the main characters were poor?
14. “For thousands of years, the worst crime in China was a lack of filial piety. Having children with no xiàoshùn was a fate worse than death. It meant being forgotten in the afterlife, a wandering ghost doomed to starve when no offerings came in from irreverent descendants. . . . The West had corrupted them—and whose fault was that?” What is filial piety? How is respect for parents and ancestors demonstrated in your culture? Have you ever had to confront your family with a different idea than the one they taught you? What challenges arose?
15. When Kathleen masquerades as a university student publishing a piece on the Communist Party’s secretary-general, she describes it as “‘A study of power . . . and the madness that comes with it. A study of the powerful, and those who are scared of him. . . . The uncovering of the madness.’” She could be talking about the secretary-general or any combination of characters and situations. Discuss as a group how power, madness, and fear is manifested in the story. Use examples from the text.
16. “The gangsters could still join forces with the tired factory workers and their boycotts. Together, if only the Scarlet Gang wanted to, they could overrun the foreigners . . .” Knowing this, how do you feel about the gangs’ choice to rule over the city? How do the Scarlets and White Flowers perpetuate and heighten issues of violence, poverty, sickness, imperialism, the opium crisis, and more? Why doesn’t either gang unite with the working class? Support your response with examples.
17. How does Juliette’s loyalty to “her city, her gang, her family” change across both books? What do you think is more important: loyalty or survival? Explain your answers.
18. “When the choice was between protecting those you loved and sparing the lives of strangers, who would ever think that to be a hard decision?” How would you answer Juliette’s question? At what cost comes destruction and violence in the name of love? If you were Juliette’s or Roma’s friend and they told you how they felt about each other, how would you react? Do you think what they have is love? Share with the class.
19. Juliette suggests that if she had paid close attention, she could have supported Rosalind and found “something that made her place worth it.” Considering the theme of star-crossed lovers, do you think that it was inevitable that Rosalind would also fall in love with a White Flower? How and why is Rosalind and Dimitri’s relationship different from Juliette and Roma’s? Why does Juliette think Rosalind’s future and actions could be changed, but not her own?
20. There have long been scholars and critics who read Shakespeare’s plays with a queer and trans lens, examining the bard’s use of gender-bending in his stories. While these characters’ identities may not have been accepted in the 1920s, what is the significance of including explicitly queer characters and a trans character in Gong’s adaptation? Explain your answer.
1. Divide the class into two sides (Scarlets and White Flowers), and debate whether revolution is possible without violence. Consider alternative methods to create social change. Use moments in history and current events as examples. In this scenario, pretend the two sides are willing to set aside the blood feud.
2. Juliette and Roma frequently refer to “the city” personified as if the place is what causes violence and not people’s actions. What do you think about this? Choose a chapter and rewrite it from the city’s perspective.
3. For those who have read or seen Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, characters and specific scenes from Gong’s adaptation will seem familiar. Choose a character, whether they exist in the original play or not, and create a character map that shows their character development and personality. If they’re a character that appears in the play, consider the differences and similarities. What catalysts propel their story across both books? What are the points of no return? You can create your map as a time line, an aesthetic board or video, a series of tweets, diary entries, or something else. Be prepared to present your map to the class, including a rationale on why you chose to represent it the way you did.
4. In These Violent Delights, Paul tells Juliette that some people are “‘too poor to deserve’” the vaccine. Then, in Our Violent Ends, the Scarlets fight Juliette’s plan to make a free vaccine that’s accessible to all. While the Covid-19 vaccine was free to all in the US, it has not always been easily accessible. Research the barriers and the groups of people who are disproportionately affected by inaccessibility to health care. Why do these barriers exist? Get into groups and choose one of the following: 1. Create informational material (i.e., a short video, pamphlet, zine, blog post, etc.) to report your findings. 2. Imagine you are a system of government. Outline a plan for how to address the issues you learned about.
5. Choose an overlapping theme from Shakespeare’s play and Gong’s books. Write an essay that explores how Gong’s retelling supports the theme through character, plot, setting, and style.
6. The first scene in Our Violent Ends involves Juliette, Kathleen, and Roma attending a silent movie screening. In groups, create a three-to-five-minute silent movie version of either book, including a movie poster. You can choose to include yourselves as actors, recruit friends and family, or find some other way to include “actors,” such as toys or illustrations. Find some examples on YouTube to get inspired.
Guide written by Cynthia Medrano, Digital Services Librarian at Heartland Community College, and member of the 2022 Rise: A Feminist Book Project Committee.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.